My First Hour in Cadillac's Tesla-Fighter

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A week ago, I got to spend some time in the Cadillac ELR, which entersvolume production in November. No, I didn't get to drive it, butI performed a detailed examination of the interior.

Besides, it shouldn't drive too dramatically differently from theChevrolet Volt -- except better, faster, better suspension, etc. But more about that later.

The Cadillac ELR is General Motors' ( GM) third electric car, following the ChevroletVolt and the Chevrolet Spark, which just started selling in Californiaand Oregon. It is based on the Volt, with much of thedrivetrain hardware the same.

The history behind the ELR is this: At the DetroitAuto Show in January 2009, Cadillac showed the Converj concept car,based on the Volt, which had yet to enterproduction but whose design had been 99% completed andshown the previous September.

However, GM was on the ropes and went bankrupt. The Cadillac version of the Volt was put on ice. Once GM was back on solid footing, havingseen its major debts and obligations being pushed on to the US taxpayer(among others), the electric Cadillac was revived two years later.

Engineering the ELR -- which would normally take over fouryears -- took only two years for two reasons:

1. It's based on the Volt. The hard parts of thedrivetrain -- battery, generator, inverter, electric motor, all theelectronics -- had already been developed, and all that was needed wassome refinement, mostly software tuning.

2. The exterior design was defined from Day One (late Spring 2011): Make it look as close to the 2009 Converj concept car as possible! So no need for elaborate debate or design studies.

Let me first get to the point that we don't know: The price. It hasbeen rumored that GM will set the price in time for the Pebble BeachConcours that's held in mid-August. That sounds reasonable andlogical, given that the car will enter production in the week or two afterThanksgiving 2013.

You can equip a Chevrolet Volt up to $46,000-something, with areasonably loaded configuration having an MSRP of $44,000. GM and itsdealers offer approximately $5,000 off, for a $39,000 price. Taxincentives are up to $9,000 if you live in California, and will be thesame on the Cadillac ELR.

What kind of premium would the ELR warrant over the Volt? If GM doesn't want to sell it below MSRP, the premium needs tobe calculated on the Volt price after the $5,000 discount.

If GM wants to sell the Cadillac ELR in the many thousands, I don'tsee how they could set an MSRP over $50,000 and expect to sell itwithout discounts after the first wave of enthusiasts have been burnedoff. Perhaps a nice round $50,000 even is the answer. Keep in mindthat the all-new 2014 Chevrolet Corvette starts under $52,000.

There has been plenty of speculation that GM will price the ELRmuch higher -- around $60,000 or perhaps even over $65,000. If theydo, expect sales of the ELR to be very rare.

You also have to keep in mind that as I wrote recently, the Chevrolet Volt 2.0 will be launched in 2014 and it will bemuch-improved over the current Volt. I'm not going to rehash what Iwrote in the June 11 article, butthat leaves only a short window for the Cadillac ELR to fetch apremium price.

After examining the interior and exterior of the Cadillac ELR inperson for a few hours, here is my verdict:

1. Exterior: While taste is subjective, I'm convinced that mostpeople will find as I did -- that the Cadillac ELR is one of themost stunning designs in the automotive world right now. It will turnheads more than a Tesla ( TSLA) and almost every other car, certainly those below $200,000.

If you buy your car mostly on exterior design, the Cadillac ELR willbe on top of your list.

2. Interior: Let's start with the back seats. They are two fixedbuckets, just like the Volt, but it's harder to get inand out given the lack of four doors. Once you are there, you can sitbehind yourself if you are almost 6 feet tall and barely fit your feetand knees by the skin of your teeth.

Headroom? That's another story. What is adequate headroom in theVolt for a person at least 5-foot-11 tall is simply not there in theELR. I don't know how short you would have to be in order tobe okay in the ELR. Perhaps 5 feet, perhaps not?

I found the front seats to be a little better than the Volt's. They arealso electrically adjustable, if anyone cares about that. The seatingposition is almost identical to the Volt, but on the margin I foundthat the tiny variances were in the ELR's favor.

The dashboard controls and electronicshave been refined from those in the current Volt. In the end, I don'tthink most of the improvements are important, but the instruments lookbetter for sure. It's a lot more classy and beautiful.

The one fundamental change that's noteworthy are the paddle-shiftersbehind the steering wheel. In the ELR, they perform the "heavy regen"function of the L position in the gear shifter. In the Volt, you haveto move the coarse gear shifter to accomplish this, which is not therefinement worthy of any of these cars. The ELR solution isbrilliant, and is in fact similar to what we experienced in the FiskerKarma.

The interior materials are very nice -- suede, leather and woodeverywhere. In particular, suede. It is a major step-up from theVolt. However, is it ahead of the interior quality of the major$50,000 car competition from the major German and Japanese brands? Ithink it is approximately equal to, but not necessarily better than,many of those.

What else is different with the ELR when compared to the Volt? Two things:

1. Power. While the ELR is mostly based on Chevy Volt powertrainhardware, the parts have been tuned and refined -- much of it beingin software -- too eke out a few more percentage points ofpower. If for no other reason, this enables GM to say that this isn'ta Volt underneath. Technically it isn't. It's just 97% so.

2. Suspension. For those of you who have driven the Volt, you knowthe suspension has an odd feeling to it. Also, the car could use somesoundproofing, especially from the front wheel wells. All of this hasbeen reworked on the Cadillac ELR, and we will learn more about itwhen we get to drive it, hopefully very soon.

What about the inevitable comparison with Tesla? Gee, where to begin? There are two ways to look at the issue:

1. They don't compete. The Tesla is a car with huge luggage spaceand can fit at least five adults, with an optional two-seat situation inthe trunk for small kids. The Tesla is faster, is all-electric, etc.etc. Fine! Clearly some people will not cross-shop the two.

2. Some people just want a car that's cool. And theCadillac ELR is very cool, because it looks like no other car on theroad, except another extreme Cadillac. The Cadillac has theinherent flexibility of the Volt, which can work on gasoline just likea regular car. No need to plug it in if you can't or won't. Drive toVegas on a moment's spur without batting an eye; no need to stop andrecharge -- just spend four minutes refueling, once.

The truth is that both approaches are true. Some prospective Teslabuyers would never consider the ELR; others will. I think the lattercategory is a minority, but it's not zero. Some will depend on price. If GM keeps the ELR's price below $50,000, they could take away moresales from Tesla; otherwise likely minimal.

One thing is clear: When you see a Cadillac ELR, your jaw will drop.It's that beautiful.

At the time of publication, the author had no position in any stock mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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